Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, Louis Roederer’s Chef de Caves, came to Washington, DC, last week. We spent an hour talking with him about Champagne before we all sat down to a Champagne luncheon in his honor hosted by Maisons Marques & Domaines. Our discussion touched on sustainable viticulture, climate change, making Champagne, and more. The luncheon gave us an opportunity to try several Roederer Champagnes, including three from the 2005 vintage: Blanc de Blancs, Brut Vintage, and Cristal. We hope to visit Roederer on our trip to Champagne this autumn, in preparation for our upcoming report on Champagne.
On developments in viticulture, Jean-Baptiste briefed us on Roederer’s adoption of sustainable and biodynamic vitcultural practices, noting that 40 of Roederer’s 240 hectares of estate vineyards are now being farmed biodynamically and an additional 15 hectares are farmed organically. He affirmed that these practices were contributing to a stronger sense of place or “terroir” in the wines as well as higher acidity and greater phenolic ripeness in the fruit.
On climate change he noted that while the long term trend is for warmer temperatures in Champagne, there are also significant year to year variations. During the late 1960s into the 1980s, Champagne experienced many cool vintgages. Consequently, grapes were picked as late as October, and malolactic fermentation was used to soften the acidity, and autolysis made Champagnes richer tasting and more complex. In recent years, temperatures have been warmer and harvests earlier. Because the fruit is riper and more flavorful, autolysis no longer plays such an important role, and lower acidity levels allow winemakers to do less malolactic fermentation, especially in warmer years. On the other hand, winemakers are employing more time on the lees with more frequent stirring and what he calls “nano-oxygenation” to provide added freshness and elegance to the wines. Acidulation is also permissible these days, if and when needed.
We also talked about blending practices and the role of dosage in making Champagne. Roederer has divided its 240 hectares into 410 parcels that are vinified separately and subsequently blended. Jean-Baptiste told us he spends up to four months a year on blending, blind tasting about 40 samples per day from the 400+ parcels. Pretty amazing! On dosage, he explained that dosage was important to Roederer for maintaining the “house style” in non-vintage Champagne. However, dosage can be a “mask on the wine,” he noted, so it’s necessary to adapt the dosage to each cuvée. In crafting its vintage Champagnes, Roederer’s goal is to allow the grapes and terroir to determine the unique character of the Champagne.
We ended our discussion with a promise to meet again in Champagne this autumn. We sure look forward to meeting Jean-Baptiste again and learning more about Champagne from a great master craftsman.
Mike Potashnik and Don Winkler